The Theatreguide.London Review
The King And I
A daunting task, you have to admit, putting on a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's masterpiece. No matter how many producer's meetings, the conclusion remains the same: gold and red sets, satin dresses, a score you can't change and lots of elephant motifs.
After all, there's a triple obstacle that needs to be addressed before a happy tune is whistled or a note sung. The story is fixed in a historically recorded time and place, the musical is one of the timeless classic five from the top musical dream team, and the lead role will forever be dogged by Yul Brynner who hogged it mercilessly for decades (but just think, it could have been Rex Harrison).
There are therefore no surprises in this new production. Everything is done by the book and also comes road-tested via tours and Broadway.
All the historical splendour of 19th century Siam is lavished on an immense set that focuses on the characters without dwarfing them. A trifle traditional by today's hi-tech standards, it still does the trick. Likewise the costumes.
The music is problematic though. The orchestra is irritatingly muted throughout and removes much of the momentum. The almost perfect ballad Something Wonderful went straight over my head - Taewon Yi Kim's rendering of Lady Thiang's lament was emotionally powerful but the arrangement just wasn't there for her.
This also links in with the two stars, both of whom are miscast. As the King of Siam Jason Scott Lee looks good and has an athletic poise that gives him deserved claim to the part.
However, his vocals are mushy – he can't make up his mind whether to speak or sing his way through the lyrics and stumbles somewhere in between. In particular, the bouncing wit of A Puzzlement falls disappointingly flat.
Opposite Lee, Elaine Paige as governess Anna Leonowens is landed with a part that requires tight dramatic control in the sung parts, something which isn't her speciality. Confident in the spoken sections, in the songs she fights each note in an attempt to hold back her great voice.
I Whistle A Happy Tune loses all intimacy while her self restraint in Shall We Dance snaps it down, not helped by Lee's unpromising contribution to the duet. From Paige's point of view, it's a bit like putting a power boat in a tall ships race - unfair to all.
Watching Brynner and Virginia MacKenna in 1979, also at the Palladium, it was clear that, although clearly a vehicle for the former, it worked brilliantly in terms of drama and humour. These are precisely the elements lacking in the Lee/Paige formula.
No matter. Expect a long, successful run. The spectacle is there, the performers give it their all, the audience young and old already know all the songs. The royal kids are enchanting. The play within a play of The Small House of Uncle Thomas is a proverbial feast for the eyes and ears. And as love stories go it's simply unbeatable.
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